To build the Kingdom, we need both Mary and Martha

Bud Reeves

Bud Reeves

By William O. “Bud” Reeves
Special Contributor

So I’m sitting at my desk, poring over a revision of the personnel policy for employees. It’s the third time I’ve done this in three appointments with staff, and I begin to wonder, “Why was I called to ministry?” Wasn’t it supposed to be about preaching, teaching, winning souls for Christ, being there for people in crisis situations? For me, every moment spent near a human resources document is a moment near the gates of Hades.

But so much of ministry is “church work”: committee meetings, policy decisions, managing conflict, raising resources. Where was that “high and holy” part? It seems like we’re just plodding along sometimes.

So much of life is just plodding along. We go to work, go to school, or have our list of chores to do at home. We worry about finances, about our kids and/or parents, about conflicts in our families and circle of friends, about the state of the world. Most days it’s just putting one foot in front of the other and doing what has to get done. Where’s the fun part, the abundant life we were promised?

Important, not urgent

One of my favorite Bible moments is the story of Mary and Martha and the visit of Jesus in Luke 10. When Jesus and the disciples come to visit, Martha gets all busy preparing meals and making her guests comfortable. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, trying to soak it all in—until Martha complains, then Jesus seems to rebuke Martha and favor Mary for her more spiritual attitude.

I’ve always taken a little umbrage at the Lord’s remarks there. I sympathize with Martha. Somebody has to fix supper! Somebody has to attend the committee meeting, take the kids to practice, do the laundry, teach Sunday school. Without a few dependable threads, the fabric of our lives would unravel.

But there Mary sits at the feet of Jesus—head tilted back, water in her eyes, heart full to bursting. And Jesus calls it good.

Steven Covey, in his classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about the matrix between important and urgent activities. Some things are neither important nor urgent; we can ignore those. Some are important and urgent; we have to deal with those. Some are urgent but not important; those things just waste our time. It’s in the important but not urgent items where effectiveness is born. Looking long term, seeing the big picture, projecting a vision for the future—we have to make time to do the important but not urgent activities in order to live a life that is purposeful, meaningful and productive.

Seeking balance

Mary was doing some important but not urgent activity at the feet of Jesus. We have to make room to balance our “Martha time” with “Mary time.” We have to take care of business and do the things that keep the wheels turning. But we can’t lose sight of the reason for our activity, the long-term purpose of our ministry and the things that fill our soul with abundant and eternal life here and now.

Over the course of time, as we look back, we can see that significant things were accomplished. Though we never get it all done in a day, small bits of daily progress add up eventually to remarkable change. Children grow up in the faith, youth navigate adolescence, families grow together, marriages survive, broken people become whole, communities are transformed, churches grow, buildings get built (even paid for!). Little by little, the Kingdom grows. Though there are few leaps and bounds, there are steady steps forward as we remember to do what’s important in the midst of what’s necessary.

October is Martha time in most of our churches: finance campaigns, Pastor-Parish meetings, nominations, charge conferences. I’ve been down that road a few times. Let me encourage you to make time to be Mary in this season. Pray. Worship. Build relationships. Practice mercy and compassion. That’s important, even if not urgent.

But let me also encourage to you embrace your inner Martha. Do the work of the church as if it’s the work of the Kingdom, because largely it is. Plodding along is still walking the walk, and the reward is still life abundant and eternal in the end. Walk on!

The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as senior pastor of First UMC Fort Smith. Email: breeves@arumc.org.